Getting to the Root Causes of Anger
I remember watching “Goodfellas” in a movie theatre when it first came out in 1990. The film, which was based on events that happened in and around my neighborhood of Canarsie, Brooklyn, was very real to me, particularly the scene where Joe Pesci says to Ray Liotta, “Do I amuse you? Do you think I’m a clown?” My stomach was in knots as I watched. It brought back events and experiences I’d witnessed in childhood and adolescence.
As a kid growing up in Brooklyn, I saw a great deal of anger in the family and neighborhood, and truth be told, within myself. As I matured, I wanted to understand why we get so angry. Is anger a bad thing? And how can it be diminished?
I began to do my own healing work, learning to manage and control my anger. I later had the opportunity to counsel clients with comparable issues of displaced anger, explosivity, and suppressed rage in a variety of settings, ranging from probation homes to maximum security prisons to high-end treatment centers. I came to see that no matter the person’s background, the underpinnings of anger were similar: their anger was an expression or manifestation of underlying feelings of fear, shame, and betrayal.
Allow me to explain in more detail.
Fear. Think of an animal trapped in a corner. Even the most docile animal may attempt to bite or claw when threatened. It’s the same with human beings—frightened people can erupt in self-protective anger or rage.
Shame. People often react with anger when they feel disrespected, humiliated or embarrassed. Others’ real or perceived attacks simultaneously hurt the ego and constitute a threat to the individual’s well-being. For example, in the prison world, if an inmate allows another inmate’s disrespect without retaliation, the first inmate makes themselves vulnerable and may be in for worse treatment in the future.
Betrayal. Some of the literature I read while researching anger identified pain or a sense of being hurt as a root cause of that emotion. My counseling experience, however, showed me a more specific feeling at play: betrayal. This made sense to me. If we are open to, and vulnerable with, a parent, sibling, friend, or romantic partner who betrays that trust, we may become rageful. Betrayal, like fear and shame, represents a threat to our person.
I also noticed another underlying cause of anger, which involves a pattern of self-righteousness. I called this the “two guys sitting in a bar” scenario. We’ve all seen it before: two guys (or gals, for that matter) arguing over sports, politics, religion, or some other topic, both convinced they’re right and the other wrong. Next thing you know, words are hurled and perhaps punches thrown. This self-righteous pattern is a daily occurrence in our society. Facebook, for instance, is awash with self-righteous arguments where neither party changes their mind and the invective flows in torrents.
To be clear, there is nothing inherently wrong about anger. It’s a key part of our human makeup. Anger becomes problematic only when it flares out of control, or is squelched and then erupts in passive-aggressive form (hostility masked as kindness, humor, etc.) or as a volcanic explosion.
I encourage clients to examine their anger and ask themselves: Where is it coming from? What form does it take? What lies beneath it? Exploration is the key to understanding and controlling anger, with transformation the end goal, as we attempt to move from our inability to manage anger to become more emotionally stable and balanced individuals.